Is there space for me, as a Christian, to participate in the public square? How do I continue to trust in the Gospel in a place that can feel so secular and distant from what I believe to be true? As a Christian working in politics, this is something I have wrestled with and have been asked many times.
Now I believe the answer is yes, and not only yes, but that our public square needs Christian witness and influence so that Christ is glorified and society flourishes. Yet to do that, we need to be able to engage with and answer the questions we get asked in an increasingly secular political culture.
The foundation for Christian participation
First, we need to think about our foundation. What do I mean by the public square? We can trace the phrase back to the ancient Greeks with the ‘agora’, meaning ‘gathering space’ - at the heart of their cities. This was the place where people gathered, discussed, traded, and protested. The phrase is now synonymous with the broader discussions, debates and stories that are told throughout society by different people. How and why should Christians participate in this?
We see an early example in Acts. The Apostle Paul is escorted to Athens for his own safety after encountering fierce resistance in cities like Thessalonica and Berea. If I was Paul, I’d be queuing up for the first boat home. Instead, Paul walks the streets of Athens and becomes distressed by the sheer number of idols he sees.
What does he do in response? He preaches in the synagogues, the marketplaces, and finally gets summoned to the Areopagus - the beating heart of the Greek public square. This was where the Ancient Athenians held court and delivered judgements, where their council of citizens would meet. When asked about the strange ideas he taught, Paul responded with the full measure of the gospel.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… in him we live and move and have our being… for he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” - Acts 17:24-31.
This is just a snapshot of Paul’s spectacular sermon, in which he boldly and brilliantly defends the gospel in the home of philosophy and debate at the centre of the Roman Empire.
What can we learn from Paul in Athens? Here are two takeaways.
1. Be comfortable with strange looks
2. Be ready to give an answer
Be comfortable with strange looks
The Areopagus Council, for all their worldly wisdom, were confused by the ‘strange’ ideas that Paul was bringing. These were the greatest minds in Athens, the ones accredited with authority and power and yet they couldn’t comprehend the message of the Gospel. This shouldn’t surprise us.
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” - 1 Corinthians 1:27.
God chooses the foolish things of the world, the things which look weak and without power, to shame the strong, proud, and self-righteous. This is a glorious message. It tells us not to take pride or confidence in our own abilities but to trust in God’s power and provision.
The Gospel can look weak today. Before the 2021 Census took place, the Guardian published an article subtitled:
“Snapshot of Britain will see many reject church as immoral or irrelevant…”.
This sort of analysis can knock our confidence as Christians. It makes us nervous, and strengthens our fear of strange looks should we tell our peers or colleagues about our faith.
When we feel like this we need to go back to those verses from Acts and 1 Corinthians. The Gospel looked weak and without power in the first century, but within a few hundred years it had spread right across Europe, shaping every aspect of society. So, when we’re worried about strange looks or questions, let’s remember who we trust in and what He has promised.
“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead."
Be ready to give an answer
We may not have a sermon like Paul’s tucked up our sleeves for when we have conversations with friends, but we can always be prepared to give an answer. It doesn’t have to be brilliantly worded or have detailed Bible verses referenced at every point. Remember, God uses the weak and foolish things of this world (me and you!).
The Gospel shapes our whole lives, including our political perspectives. This isn’t to say that we believe the same things about politics but, whether you’re Labour or Conservative, Lib Dem or SNP, if you’re a Christian, this will shape your opinions.
What an opportunity then to let our faith influence our day-to-day interactions. When we’re asked why we think the way we do, this is a great way to weave in our faith through the answers we give. Why do we believe in strong families? Why do we care about the most vulnerable in society? Why do we defend the right to religion or belief? Because we believe in a God who cares deeply about our world and those in it.
What next for Christians in the public square? We see in scripture that there is a precedent for Christians to engage in public affairs. We also know that in the Gospel there is hope for the world. If Jesus is the hope of the world, then it follows that we should make this known by telling a better and more hopeful story for people and society.
As a result of Paul’s sermon, and many others in Acts, the Gospel spread right across Europe, Asia, and the world. As the Gospel is proclaimed, Christ is glorified, and society is transformed. This happened in history and is still happening today as Christians participate in society and share the glorious message of Jesus Christ.
 Acts 17:16-34.
 Acts 17:16-21.